Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 11:20 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 11:20 | SYDNEY

War: Globalisation may not matter


Hugh White

This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

9 June 2010 12:44

This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Michael Wesley's historical examples show that there are telling cases in which states have chosen not to go to war because the price is just too high. This supports Michael's argument that countries can and do rationally weigh the costs of war, and hence his basic thesis that, in an era of globalisation, as the costs of war increase, the likelihood that states will choose to avoid war increases. 

I completely agree. Globalisation does make war more costly and hence less likely. But does it make war so unlikely that we need do nothing more to avoid it? 

There is a temptation to believe that we don't have to make sacrifices to reduce the risk of future wars, when globalisation makes the risk negligible anyway. That temptation is strong because avoiding war is painful. It requires us to build and maintain an international order that limits strategic competition and reduces the sources of conflict, and that needs compromise on deeply-held national priorities. Such compromises are unpopular, so people will gladly accept the argument that they are unnecessary.

They are not. Michael's examples show that states sometimes calculate the costs and risks of war rationally, but not that they always do. There are many examples of irrational choices for war, right up to the present day. Michael mounts a supplementary argument that states are better at making rational decisions now than they were, because their people are better informed, and more sceptical. I'm not so sure: a comparison of Fox News and Thucydides' accounts of the Athenians debating war with Sparta does not flatter the globalised age.

Hence my central point: despite globalisation, there remains a real risk of escalating strategic competition between major powers, as their relative strategic weights shift. This carries a smaller but still very serious risk of conflict between them. The development of a new order which reduces these risks is the most important strategic issue of our day, and poses immense and unwelcome political challenges. We need to face up to them. 

My argument, in other words, is not that the 'globalised peace' theory is wrong, but that it is not right enough to make any difference to how we should act.

Mark's wonderfully meaty posts on Pax Mercatoria prompt me to air a hypothesis about the poverty of my own discipline compared to his. Economics and International Relations (including Strategic Studies) both attempt to create predictive generalisations about human conduct. But economics enjoys an advantage in numbers: the sheer volume of the decisions it studies provides a huge data-set from which generalisations can usefully be drawn. 

In IR – especially strategic studies – the total number of decisions is tiny, and so building useful generalisations is much harder. This makes the subject especially prone to extrapolation error. Sure, there have been no big wars between major powers for many decades. But with so few data points, how can we know whether this reflects a deep and enduring trend, or just the gap before the next event?

Photo by Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography, used under a Creative Commons license.